My childhood years were spent with my maternal grandmother, when at eventide, after supper, she would in her special way tell me stories and folk tales I later came to cherish for their moral fibre. Some of the lessons of those early years helped to shape the man I became. To many of us present, my experience as a child is not strange. In the days of yore, it was a tradition. Unfortunately, many of the good old ways that brought value to our society have succumbed to the invasion of ‘civilisation and modernity’. And if any mother here present today dares talk of moonlight conversation with either his daughter or son, he/she will simply tell her she is of the ‘Old School’.
Let us briefly examine the realities of ‘New School’. For instance, our society has recognised education as the greatest legacy that parents can give their children. And we are talking of education in the widest sense, not just restricting it to that obtained in the four walls of a classroom. It is the latter, however, that is Western education that will be the focus of our thoughts sharing today. All over the world, education has become a huge industry. Some people will argue that it is the greatest employer of labour. It is an industry that has come to accommodate all age groups, right from the cradle to the grave. After all, a septugenarian recently obtained a first degree from the Lagos State University. Nigerians are so enamoured with education for their children that they can sacrifice anything to educate them. There was a time in my part of the country, where some mothers, who could neither read nor write, would have identified the profession their children would take up later in life even when these children were still in primary school. Thus, it was popular to address such mothers as ‘Mama Lawyer’, ‘Mama Doctor’, ‘Mama Engineer’. And these mothers would do anything decent, including pawning prized possessions, to see their children through school. They would not stop at that. At every opportunity, through moonlight conversations and other avenues, they encouraged the children to reach for their dreams. The desire of parents to provide good education for their children is a flame that is still burning. That is why private schools are everywhere. In many homes today, perhaps after food, the next priority is the education of the children. Many parents deny themselves luxuries and suffer all kinds of deprivations all in the effort to pay school fees. In spite of these efforts, alas these days, the conclusion on the fate of the education sector in our country is that we are just throwing billions of naira down the drain. We are not getting value for the money we are spending either as individuals or as a nation.
What is the evidence? Over a million candidates sat for both the West African Examination Council, WAEC, and the National Examination Council, NECO, this year. The results are still being awaited. We hope they will not be as dismal as those of the last few years. For instance, the 2011 NECO results showed that only 25 per cent out of over a million candidates got credits and above in Mathematics and English Language. The WAEC result was only slightly better as only about 30 per cent scored five credits in five subjects including Mathematics and English Language. And in the 2011 NECO result, 89 per cent and 76 per cent of the candidates failed Mathematics and English Language respectively. Yet, a majority of these students have their eyes on tertiary education which is a major failure in the implementation of the nation’s education policy. In the drive for higher education for which majority of them are ill-prepared, in 2012 one and a half million candidates sat for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination. Yet, there are only 500,000 admission slots available in the nation’s universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. What becomes of the one million that would be left, that is assuming they all meet the cut-off mark? But we all know that is a tall dream.
Today, there are hundreds of undergraduates in tertiary institutions who should not be there. They have been assisted by all means, fair and foul by both parents and teachers, using what they call ‘special centres’ to pass examination and get admissions they do not deserve. Yet we feign surprise when many of our so-called graduates are unable to write a simple application letter. There are undergraduates who are pursuing courses that have no appeal to them. They have been pushed and coerced by parents whose only goal is that my son or daughter is in the university. They have not given a single thought to what the child’s own ambition is and whether he is emotionally ready and intellectually qualified to pursue a particular course. There are many lawyers today who would have been happier as teachers, mentoring little children. There are medical doctors who would have been happier in journalism or as writers. Many are just in the wrong professions, courtesy of their parents who ignored or failed to understand what their children actually want. Rather than understand and emotionally connect with the children, they widen the communication gap they have erected by filling the void with services money can buy.
In many homes, housemaids have taken over as foster mothers, and if there is any word like that, foster wives! Many children are still in bed when their parents leave for work and some are back in bed by the time their parents return. So, the children spend some six hours in school, another two hours with the lesson teacher, and for the rest of the day, they are left with their own devices.
Many parents have abandoned their children to the comfort of technology, the cable and High Definition television. Some of the things they watch on some of these channels are an abomination for their age. Yet, they have free rein. As good as the internet is, we now know that innocent children can be abused and violated through the world wide web. Some of those games our children play on the computers, what do they contribute to their mental growth and development?
As the quality and quantity of time we spend with our children drop drastically, we are surprised when we suddenly discover they have become strangers as adolescents and teenagers. Like a thunderbolt, that son who was given all the things money could buy gets into the university only to become the Capon of a confraternity. That sweet pretty daughter emerges the Queen of the female equivalent of confraternity. And cultism is not only restricted to the tertiary institutions. There are cult groups in the nation’s secondary and primary schools now. It would not be a surprise if these cult groups are in some of our most prized private schools. So, how did we arrive at this impasse? Many parents have zoned their children’s upbringing and mentoring to outsiders in the age of the rat race; breadwinners have become absentee-parents. Thus, they are not there when the children need them most. That is in their age of innocence, before they enter the expressway of this our most interesting world. For instance, after school hours, what relationship do we maintain with our children? Do we even ever bother to ask them what transpired in school? What about their homework? It is not just enough to hire lesson teachers to take charge of that. As parents, especially mothers, we must note what the teacher does or fails to do. Who are the friends of our children? Do we know their antecedents? What are the likes and dislikes of our children? How many of us can truthfully vouch for our children in the face of some ugly situations. If a child is accused of stealing, any parent who knows his child can clearly declare: “No matter the circumstance, my son or daughter will never steal.”
The converse side of this is, do your children know you? Can they vouch for you? When they look at you, who do they see? In the days of old, many children through constant dialogue with their parents at eventide learn who their parents are. Today, how many children know their parent’s pedigree?
One thing, an invaluable gift, that is missing from many homes today is the book. We are not talking of textbooks, we are talking of books that fire the imagination of a child, sow in him seeds of creativity, develop and enrich the mind. Such books are worthy companions. In such great company, even when a child is alone, he cannot be lonely. Many homes today lack books. And yet we are amazed that there is mass failure in English Language at the secondary school level. We wonder at the endemic illiteracy of the nation’s graduates after they must have spent close to two decades in school.
It is what a society sows that it shall reap. The journey to depriving the home of good ennobling books began the day our homes started ignoring newspapers and magazines. Several decades ago, especially in our urban centres, the newspaper was much sought-after in many homes. Many children learnt to read and write through the newspaper.
The disdain for books has even spread to schools. What an irony! Many so-called good schools cannot boast of standard libraries. And those who have libraries have no vote to buy books, not to talk of newspapers and magazines. Yet, in the past, many English Language textbooks in Nigeria culled stories from Nigerian newspapers and used them as comprehension passages. We have come a long way from the moonlight years.
So, what is to be done? In the rat race we have embarked on, that perpetual drive to earn a living for the family and be like the Joneses, we should from time to time do a retrospection by asking ourselves whether we are fulfilling our duties to our children who happen to be the nation’s future, the leaders of tomorrow.
(Akinkuotu, executive editor, TELL magazine, delivered this address at the eighth graduation ceremony of Champions International Schools, Lagos, July 27, 2012.)